Smoke and terrors

The day after Malcolm Turnbull took over as Prime Minister, defence minister (at the time) Kevin Andrews proudly announced that the Australian air force had for the first time “engaged a target” (if you don’t speak militarese, that means killed someone or blown something up) in Syria.

The news came too late for Tony Abbott. Just as he had been a year earlier in Iraq, Tony had been very keen to deploy troops to Syria. In fact, when Abbott announced that the US had asked for Australian support, Fairfax media reported that a source from the very leaky Liberal Party had told them Abbott had actually contacted Barack Obama and asked him to request Australian involvement in Syria.

Whether that report was true or not (I’m cynical enough to believe it possible), another war wasn’t enough to rescue Abbott from declining public and party confidence. But it’s worth remembering that one part of Tony Abbott’s legacy will be that the Australian air force has joined the confusing web of different groups using violence in Syria.

Syrian people are currently caught in the crossfire between the US and its allies, Islamic State, Al Nusra Front (the Syrian Al Quaeda), the Assad government forces and multiple smaller militias. It’s small wonder that over three million Syrians have left the country seeking asylum.

Could Australia’s addition to this mess really just be the result of a Prime Minister’s last ditch attempt to save his own skin? You surely hope not, but the more I try to make sense of the war on terror, the more important it seems to understand that the fight to control the Middle East is only one part of it. Another is the battle on the home front for public perception.

Aside from the endless reports of more people dying, the interesting news to come out of Syria recently is that US intelligence analysts have officially complained about their superiors in Central Command altering their reports to make it look like the US is doing better in the war than it really is. The US congress took the complaints seriously enough that it has launched multiple investigations to see how widespread the practice is.

It’s not the first time in the war on terror that intelligence analysts have had cause for complaint. In 2003, there protests that intelligence had been misrepresented to claim there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and justify the invasion there. History would of course prove that the weapons didn’t exist, and the current state of Iraq is testimony to the awful consequences of that deception.

Chelsea Manning was another analyst who found out intelligence was only wanted when it said what the command wanted to hear. She describes one of her earliest points of disillusionment with the military as being told to ignore the US-backed Maliki government suppressing dissent. She would later find many more incidents that had been covered up, and courageously leaked information to the public. She of course is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence for her troubles.

The current issue of reports being altered is slightly different though. Because while those other incidents seemed to have some strategic aim (invading Iraq, covering up atrocities or bolstering support for what was essentially as US puppet government), this is a war that the US is already involved in and not in control of. Lying about the current state of affairs in Syria can seemingly only harm the US war effort and strategy. It seems that the only purpose of altering the reports is to try to convince the public that actually, even after 14 years, America is winning this war after all.

Similarly there has been criticism of American statistics that claim there have been only two civilian casualties in the current round of bombing in Iraq and Syria. US General  John Hesterman has called this “the most precise and disciplined air war in history”. Journalist project Airwars.org though disputes the stats, saying that their studies show at least 450 civilians have been killed in US airstrikes. 450 innocent people dying is a tragedy, though it is a much lower number than the first US war in Iraq or the numbers killed currently in Syria by the other warring factions. But the question remains: why is the US army so intent on lying to the public about what is happening there?

For Australia, our whole presence in the war is mostly symbolic. The Australian army makes only a small contribution in numbers and attacks, but its presence helps to validate the US (who claim international support) and our own politicians (who can construct a perfect enemy out of the “evil” Islamic State and then claim that our leaders are heroically saving Syrian people from the barbarism). Of course, their analysis doesn’t extend to the question of how our current refugee policy affects these people, or of the role the US and its allies played in creating Islamic State. And as the game plays out on newspaper pages and television screens, people in the Middle East are being killed and displaced.

And they are not the only collateral damage in Australia’s war on terror. On the home front, plenty of other people are personally feeling the effects of this very public war.

You might not have heard about it, but last month, 18 year old Harun Causevic was quietly released from maximum security prison after four months. He was arrested in April in relation to the much publicised “ANZAC day terror threat”.

At the time, the gory details of the supposed threat were on the front pages of newspapers around the country. But a few months down the track, four of the five people arrested have been released with no terror charges, Harun Causevic being the latest.

Now let’s get a few things straight about this case. Firstly, police and intelligence don’t have to prove that any of these young men ever did any illegal action. They were charged with “conspiring to commit a terrorist act”, which means you can be convicted if you take actions (legal or not) to prepare for an illegal act.

Secondly, these guys weren’t released because there was a lack of evidence, though this is what some reports seemed to imply. They had been under surveillance for five weeks before being arrested. Five weeks of being spied on and having all their communications recorded. Five weeks worth of evidence, and all of it points to the fact that these men did not conspire to commit a terrorist act.

Thirdly, the gruesome terror plot we were given all the titillating details of not only never happened, it now looks clear that it was never going to happen. Another teenager remains in prison charged with conspiracy. One teenager in England is charged with inciting a terrorist attack regarding the same incident. He was 14 years old at the time. Assuming that the alleged plans actually can be proven, how capable were these two really of really doing it? The police followed this for five weeks, and in all that time, rather than step in to tell these young people that they were being watched and maybe give them some kind of rehabilitation, they waited until a week before ANZAC Day and released a fantastic story about an imminent terrorist threat.

The result was that a group of young men, now proved to be innocent, had their faces splashed across the media accused of being terrorists and were thrown in prison (Harun’s four months were in 23 hour a day solitary confinement). Rather than stopping terrorism, the whole incident gives more ammunition to radical voices claiming the Western world has a vendetta against Islam. All for the sake of a media spectacle in the leadup to Australia’s great patriotic celebration.

The furore of “foreign fighters” has taken its toll as well, as hundreds of Australians (almost entirely Muslim) have had their passports cancelled, often on pretty dubious grounds. The most recent was Omar Chandab, who was with his wife at the airport heading to Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage when he was told his passport had been cancelled. The only reason given was that Omar had three years ago trained at the same kickboxing gym as two men who travelled to Syria and died fighting the Assad regime.

Most of the information regarding these passport cancellations is kept classified, and most of the decisions are made by ASIO and the government without any judicial review. But while those affected are left wondering what legal redress they have for this, politicians and media can claim that every one of them was a potential terrorist thwarted.

The reality is that our media narrative of the “terrorist threat” is also somewhat an illusion – the spectre of Islamic State is so effective in stirring up fear that newspapers gleefully report on their every action without any context or analysis of who they are and why they are doing it. Of course, people killed by Western drones or air strikes are collateral damage, not victims of a terrorist attack.

It’s a crazy war. Details of what’s going on in the Middle East are covered up or ignored, while in Australia we are given detailed accounts of terrorist attacks that never happened. Raids on people’s houses with an invite for every media outlet in the country, only for people to be subsequently quietly released without charge. It’s a war of smoke and mirrors, of public illusions. Except that somewhere, real people are in the firing line of real weapons.

But I think it’s time to stop thinking that this war only affects faceless people in far away countries. Or even just people in our own country with brown skin. Because when the weapons of war includes media illusions, the victims of war becomes all of us.

The “war on terror” has always been scary because of the haziness of who the enemy is, or how we know when the war is over. But now; as military, governments and mass media intentionally lie to the public; we can see clearly that this is a war on us. A “shock and awe” attack intended to keep us all in fear, in compliance and in ignorance of what’s really happening. To push aside illusions and ask tough questions about the all-encompassing, never-ending War On Terror is an act of self-defence.

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